BACKGROUND - Eukaryotic organisms contain mitochondria, organelles capable of producing large amounts of ATP by oxidative phosphorylation. Each cell contains many mitochondria with many copies of mitochondrial DNA in each organelle. The mitochondrial DNA encodes a small but functionally critical portion of the oxidative phosphorylation machinery, a few other species-specific proteins, and the rRNA and tRNA used for the translation of these transcripts. Because the microenvironment of the mitochondrion is unique, mitochondrial genes may be subject to different selectional pressures than those affecting nuclear genes.
RESULTS - From an analysis of the mitochondrial genomes of a wide range of eukaryotic species we show that there are three simple rules for the pyrimidine and purine abundances in mitochondrial DNA transcripts. Mitochondrial membrane protein transcripts are pyrimidine rich, rRNA transcripts are purine-rich and the soluble protein transcripts are purine-rich. The transitions between pyrimidine and purine-rich regions of the genomes are rapid and are easily visible on a pyrimidine-purine walk graph. These rules are followed, with few exceptions, independent of which strand encodes the gene. Despite the robustness of these rules across a diverse set of species, the magnitude of the differences between the pyrimidine and purine content is fairly small. Typically, the mitochondrial membrane protein transcripts have a pyrimidine richness of 56%, the rRNA transcripts are 55% purine, and the soluble protein transcripts are only 53% purine.
CONCLUSION - The pyrimidine richness of mitochondrial-encoded membrane protein transcripts is partly driven by U nucleotides in the second codon position in all species, which yields hydrophobic amino acids. The purine-richness of soluble protein transcripts is mainly driven by A nucleotides in the first codon position. The purine-richness of rRNA is also due to an abundance of A nucleotides. Possible mechanisms as to how these trends are maintained in mtDNA genomes of such diverse ancestry, size and variability of A-T richness are discussed.